There’s something of the elegant waster about Jay McInerney. It’s in the contrasts of his life as a New York face, married to a scion of US society, but still remaining an outsider.
Or his love of wine, for all its subtlety and panache, and (former) love of that most unsubtle drug of all, cocaine.
Or the friends he keeps – the high society of the Hamptons – and the friends he sees less often, Bret Easton Ellis, once his celebrated bratpack mate.
Interviewing him in his Greenwich Village penthouse, McInerney is impeccably mannered, prone to self-deprecation and humour, both at himself and the outside world.
He talks about cocaine, fame, wine and his first novel, Bright Lights Big City, which remains his guiding light.
Where did Bright Lights come from?
Years ago I was in a nightclub and looked in a mirror and said to myself, you’re not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time in the morning. When I got home at 4.30, 5am I wrote those lines down and discovered them some months later and thought this is a really interesting voice.
I started with this second person voice that was really self-conscious and with a character who was at a catastrophic moment in his life who is extremely vulnerable and whose thoughts the reader has access to directly.
A lot of things in book that were fictional but there were three autobiographical facts that dictated the tone. My first wife who was a model left me, my mother died of cancer, and I was fired from The New Yorker.
I was kind of writing about the worst time of my life and feeling it would have some therapeutic value. In my short and relatively privileged life – I hadn’t been through any wars I wasn’t an orphan – these were the emotional crises that I had to work with.
Years ago I was in a nightclub and looked in a mirror and said to myself, you’re not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this
Does it bother you – the shadow the book has cast over your work?
No. Bright Lights Big City will always be special because it changed my life and it is one of those books that was a cultural reference. That’s not to be self-important but it was a zeitgeist book. It gave me a career – for better or worse it gave me an identity. I will never escape it. As my agent said to me Bright Lights will be the first sentence of my obituary. I am lucky to have written it.
I moved on and continued to write and have a career, but I owe that partly to Bright Lights.
How did you deal with the fame Bright Lights brought?
It was very disorienting people treating me like I knew what was going on and was cool. I remember the first time – after Bright Lights was published – and I tried to get a reservation at The Odeon. I called them and said can I get a reservation and they said they were fully booked. My wife said to me, “Idiot, call them up and say this is Jay McInerney!” That worked.
So I made a reservation for three of us because Tom Cruise was, at that point, following me around because he was due to play the main role in the [Bright Lights] film and wanted to base the character on me. In very short order I went from being a grad student to Tom Cruise following me around. It was exciting but very disorienting. But you can either embrace it or run away from it. I tended more to embrace it. I had no desire to move to a cabin in Vermont.
It was an adventure. I know lots of people and get invited to lots of places and I’m very lucky to have that. But the frenzy has long since died down. Photographers no longer sit outside my apartment – they’re outside Alec Baldwin’s apartment across the road.
Speaking of the film, it didn’t quite take off. Why?
Bright Lights was a failure on the screen. I can probably blame myself because I wrote the screenplay. But I don’t think [director] James Bridges felt the material. He didn’t come up with a visual language that’s equivalent to the prose, it was just very literal and somehow very unfunny. But then again everybody in that movie was really high, including Michael [J Fox], Kiefer [Sutherland] and me. I don’t think it helped.
Bright Lights, Big City will always be special because it changed my life and it is one of those books that was a cultural reference
They were high?
Kiefer was not in good shape when he made that movie. He suffered from the same problems that my protagonist suffered from. Michael J Fox was a very good actor but there was a problem there in terms of perception. His image was very squeaky clean, people didn’t want to see him with a coke straw up his nose. He had such a good boy image that it kind of went against the grain. I think he struggled with the part a little bit.
What’s your relationship with cocaine like now?
I think I’ve finally gotten over my love affair with cocaine. Like most love affairs it got ugly towards the end. Cocaine is not conducive to contemplation and meditation. It’s not a deep or rich subject. In terms of writing, there’s not much beyond what I did in Bright Lights and a few other books for cocaine.
Unlike cocaine, wine seems a lasting interest. What’s the attraction?
I wrote on my Instagram the other day that I had to find something to keep me busy when I stopped doing cocaine. I’ve been writing about wine for 20 years – I find it very relaxing writing about it. It is a pretty deep subject – the history and the aesthetics. It’s some combination of being an aesthete and a hedonist and wine allows you to be both.
I went from liking Californian, where the wine is ripe and obvious, to Bordeaux and eventually Burgundy which I think is the most subtle and also the most complicated wine of all. It has 1112 climats – little sub regions.
Basically, the operating premise in Burgundy is that each different patch of ground somehow reveals the terroir, the soil and place of its birth. A vineyard over beyond my terrace can yield a totally different taste to something 50 yards away. I’ve seen guys take five different glasses of Burgundy and say where they are from and what vintage. The pleasures of Burgundy are more subtle than just alcohol, ripeness, power. It is the ultimate wine geeks subject. If you get deep into wine it’s where you’re likely to end up. But there’s so much wine to be explored.